How I Came to Good Food | Civil Eats

How I Came to Good Food

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I’m going to be real honest with you, friends of Civil Eats, I was once one of those people who threw my used up old McDonalds wrappers and soda containers out the car window. I didn’t care. I ate my Filet o’Fish and fries then threw my trash into the world. That was back in Indianapolis, when I was an oblivious rebel against Keep It Clean campaigns. Sorry Mom and Dad, you taught me right; but my friends did it too – let’s blame it on peer pressure and the cult of fast food culture and call it a day. Steeped in it, I was. When hanging out at Noble Romans or in the McDonald’s parking lot is the fun thing to do after the basketball game, so be it. So, given the premise that this fast food lifestyle was part of the foundation of my youth, then how did I become a card caring Slow Food advocate and campaigner for good, clean and fair food for everyone? How did this polluting Hoosier with no sense for the environment or food quality get here?

For my own biographical edification, I’ll detail my food history (the activism part is a whole other story). And, for your reading pleasure, I’ll make it brief.

It started in Indianapolis, pre trash throwing days with an education in fresh food. As a young girl and tween my parents grew a variety of vegetables in our backyard: carrots, kohlrabi, green beans, tomatoes, green peppers, sweet corn and strawberries. I spent many a summer day eating mulberries right off the tree in our suburban yard and sampling tomatoes from the vine. (Who doesn’t love the smell of a tomato leaf plucked from the stalk?) We supplemented Mom’s favorite canned soups and casserole recipes with our bounty. We never had much money so I can imagine the garden helped out a lot when times were particularly lean. And, they were often lean. The vegetable patch and times spent in the garden with my Mom, Dad, brother and sisters remain amongst my fondest memories.

In high school, I worked for a small pizza hot spot in Broad Ripple Village (my neighborhood on the Northside) called Bazbeaux. I became enthralled with the rush of food service culture and the flavor of their creamy cucumber dressing – it tasted like real cucumbers. And, guess what? It’s because they made it with real cucumbers. Schilling pizza with “gourmet” fresh ingredients gave me daily access to new food flavors. I also worked for a small catering company owned by a friend’s mom. I was Claudette’s right hand gal and learned a lot about cooking for and serving big groups, especially in Kosher kitchens. And, it was during this time, when I drove my friends around after school in my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, en route to tennis matches and make-out sessions, that I was the litterbug – high on teenage angst and addicted to my own melodrama. In retrospect I simply lived the way everyone else did: ordered my food at the drive thru, ate it in my car and threw the trash out the window. Same with the cigarettes I smoked – out the window so they wouldn’t fill up the ashtray I didn’t want be obligated to empty.

At Indiana University, hanging with a slightly more sophisticated crowd and afraid of the freshman 15 (the pounds you gain your first year), I cleaned up my act a bit and curbed the fast food dining. Barely managing to feed myself a favorite rice and soy sauce combo, I earned my keep with more catering and pizza parlor work. Then, the summer before junior year, I found myself managing a kitchen for a canoe outfitter in Ely, Minnesota. I wanted a challenge and a completely different, out-of-the-box experience. And, it was in Ely that I finally engaged with the outdoors. Prior to this time I thought I would never want to have a connection to the woods or earth. Like I had a choice. I would tell friends that for me to go for a hike I’d need to be encased in a glass box. I was afraid of bugs and dew and bear, and moose to be sure! But a summer swimming in clean lakes, social hikes after dinner, black flies eating me alive, picking leeches off my thighs and waking at 3 a.m. to watch the Northern Lights transformed me. I shed my city ways and became one with the wild. Then, I spent the summer before senior year in Florence Italy, eating simple food – another wake up call. By then, my littering days were over. Fast food took more shedding.

After graduating, English degree in tow, I moved to the Bay Area. I remember one of my last McDonald’s burgers – first year in the East Bay, boyfriend and I at Micky Ds. He orders two Big Macs and acts like its no big deal. I realize that these things are contributing to our growing girth; that I was on my way to becoming a big, fat person. That initial realization took a while, but it led to an entirely new life. My first real job in the Bay was as an Associate Editor of a now defunct vegetarian magazine called Veggie Life. After a year I became Managing Editor and had the pleasure of diving deep into the issues surrounding vegetarianism and tasty vegetarian recipes. My next job was for a cookbook publisher who paid for a few cooking classes at Tante Marie. Once I connected food, cooking and career it was natural for me to want to learn about produce and protein origins, and all the nasty stories behind our agricultural and food culture behemoths. I started my own course of study – reading, cooking, and experimenting with different products from different sources. I also continued to work in restaurants from pubs to fine dining establishments. Always observing, tasting and learning.

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As I grew older and slightly wiser, I felt a pull to re-connect with my roots. My grandfather’s death initiated a period of introspection and reflection complemented by my grandmother giving me a stack of old family journals. One includes a tear sheet from an 1836 fruit tree catalogue from Kinderhook Nursery, Corning & Lyon Proprietors (Lyon was my relative), listing “Standard, 1 year, 3 to 4 feet” apple trees for $8.00 per 100 and $75.00 per 1000. I began to see the depth of my family’s ties to the land. My Dad grew up on “The Farm” in Adams County, Ohio – befriending cows and swimming in the crick (Ohio for “creek.”) and his brother stayed in nearby Leesburg and raised hogs on his farm. Later when my uncle died I got to visit “The Farm” and held its wheat grains in my hand. When I go back home to the Midwest, I’m always reminded of this connection and how easy it is to become unhealthy and heavy over time. Options are scarce, folks wax on about Rally’s curly fries and kids still linger at the Burger King.

A few weeks WOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) at Woody Hollow Farm in Nuhaka, New Zealand (on the North Island’s Mahia Peninsula), introduced me to the Zen of tending strawberry plants, the joy of a bright orange egg yolk and the magic in unearthing new potatoes. I befriended a Maori woman who lived on a sheep farm and enjoyed a visit watching her son and a group of five enormous Maori guys shear sheep at high speed. This journey was part of a six-month long exploration of the southern hemisphere – a respite from the “real world” that brought me closer to the earth’s rhythms and my own. And, a personal experience with the environmental degradation caused by our species – backwards deforestation and open space policies, dead reefs, floating ocean trash heaps, the impact of plastic on birds, trees, beaches and serene places. I’ve also had eye-opening travels through of some of the world’s poorest neighborhoods in cities like Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Sydney along with small, very poor villages in Vietnam and Cambodia where kids drink from the water in which their own feces floats. And, too I’ve witnessed how people rally and adapt in their environments – how they build water catchment systems and wind farms, grow food and herd hogs on boats, hang their clothes to dry in the sun, laugh despite hardships and live within their means. I’ve witnessed our abundant planet and know there are resources to feed the world’s hungry and the means to regenerate our shell-shocked landscapes. I also believe there is enough human will to create positive change.

Returning to the states I knew I couldn’t go back to work doing anything that even remotely contributed to continuing on a course of degradation as it regards people, planet and what’s possible. I made a choice to work towards a resilient and regenerative food system. I put my money where my mouth is and finally joined Slow Food, an organization that appealed to my politics and my palate. Later, the pleasure of busting my ass all summer as the Program Director for Slow Food Nation kept that fire inside me burning and there is no stopping this train. I haven’t lost hope in good food, clean water and healthy open spaces for everyone. Nowadays I pick up the trash I see on 18th Street, hoping some teenager at Mission High will see me and think I look cool.

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Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. linda Westfall
    Jen, I enjoyed reading your article.
  2. Jen,

    I'm from Illinois, and I've eaten a tasty pizza at Bazbeaux in Indy. I too have evolved from being a taco bell addict guzzling dr. pepper, to growing veggies on my fire escape and finding out the truth about the megafarms I grew up by as a teen.

    Fight the good fight. If we can become enlightened, everyone can!
  3. jdalton
    Thanks so much for your comment Paula. I hear you! It's time for a food regime change!
  4. claudette Einhorn
    So happy to see that you remember your days with me at "In Good Taste" catering. Onward and upward, girl!

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